In fifth grade I qualified to compete in the school district's annual spelling bee finals. But during the qualifying round I only placed #9 out of 10. The word I misspelled was good-bye. I forgot the hyphen. Good-bye, it seems, has never been easy for me.
This summer brought together a rare combination of events that created the perfect storm of a good-bye for me and my closest of friends. It began early in the spring when I was introduced to a woman from Ireland named Dee and her three children. Her family was temporarily living in Ann Arbor while her husband finished out his anesthesiology fellowship at the University of Michigan hospital. My good friend Maya had eagerly adopted Dee and her brood into her amiable fold and I followed her lead. Soon, we three amigos were nearly inseparable.
It is not easy to discern what exactly attracts someone to a new friend or how a perfectly balanced dynamic is achieved between three like-minded women. For Dee, Maya and me it was found somewhere in a place between dark humor and a rarely admitted to understanding that our domestic lives had sucked the life blood out of us. Somehow we began on a foundation composed of unabashed honesty and the willingness to admit, if not to the world than to each other, that we are not superwomen but instead utterly, beautifully and simply flawed human beings like everyone else.
Without pretense, we hung by the pool letting our cellulite show while the eight children we have between us splashed and screamed like savages. Often their antics cleared all the other pool-goers from the decks. When this occurred, we silently decided not to apologize and enjoyed the benefits of a pool all to ourselves. Every Monday we met at a local breakfast joint to imbibe coffee and carbs together. Pizza parties and three-family-sleep-overs took place at least weekly and our children enjoyed the freedom of running amok in Maya's big house. They chased each other through hallways with rubber swords and styrofoam shields. They created dinosaur museums in the basement and blew gigantic bubbles from homemade bubble formula in the front yard.
In the background of these play dates, Dee, Maya and I chattered on about a variety of subjects: our husbands, the sorry state of our well-worn bodies and our plastic surgery wish list, the need for at least eight more hours in every day, the follies and foibles of our youth and the hopes we have for our futures and those of our children.
May, June and July swept by and before we knew it we were facing what we knew was before us all along: Dee's family's return to the U.K. mid-August and my family's relocation to San Diego soon after. During all the evenings we spent together drinking Gin & Tonics on Dee's back deck or dancing to our favorite 80's music till the wee hours we had scarcely mentioned our inevitable end-of-the-summer-good-byes. The knowledge, however, that our parting was fated made those evenings sweeter and the laughter we shared deeper.
When Dee left two weeks ago, I had strategically planned to be in San Diego with my husband on a house hunting trip. I foretold that if I attended Dee's final farewell I would not only face the feelings of sadness her departure would elicit but also relive all the teary good-byes of my past; my father as he moved out of the house when my parents separated, my dying grandparents, a friend who died in a car accident during high school, dear friends and cherished loves. Through the years I have perfected a quiet stoicism in the face of good-bye that always later, when alone in the shower or in the car, gives way to sobbing.
When my mother was diagnosed with incurable cancer in 2006, I faced an unavoidable good-bye. I'd said good-bye to her so many times in prior years; screaming as she left me for my first day at preschool, smiling shyly as I waved at her from the doorway of my kindergarten class, barely turning back to blow a kiss as I boarded a plane to Europe the summer between high school and college, anxious for her to leave after moving me into my college dorm room, sandwiching her in a hug between my husband and me before leaving for my honeymoon, wide-eyed and frightened as I held my newborn son in my arms and she left me to my own devices. This good-bye, however, would be different from the rest. No happy reunions would follow this parting. This good-bye was final.
Looking back, I did everything in my power to take control of a situation in which I had no control. In the months leading up to the end, I busied myself by focusing on my blossoming pregnancy, making Mom's doctor and therapy appointments, squaring away finances, contacting my mother's friends and organizing their visits, arranging for hospice services and funeral services. What I avoided was the one thing I should have been focused on: spending time with my mother. The few times I did take a break from the busywork and lay down beside her to talk I was faced with her impending death and it hurt. So I avoided the hurting through perpetual motion.
While my defense mechanism was maintaining order in the chaos, my mother's preferred combat was humor. One afternoon I was resting on the bed with her and admitted I wasn't sure how I would get along without her. When we both teared up she said, "But, Jenie, do you know what I am really going to miss?" Bracing myself, I asked her "what?" She responded, deadpan, "The new fall season of television. I mean, it's hard to believe I will never know what happens to those doctors on Grey's Anatomy."
After my mom died a few weeks later in hospice I was left standing alone, seven months pregnant and hungry, in the parking lot. My siblings had all scattered to deal with the loss in their own ways. My husband had been summoned to an important business meeting and, though he hesitated, I had encouraged him to go. I continued in my stoic fashion, buckling my big belly into the car and driving myself to Zingerman's Deli in search of what I craved: a large reuben sandwich and a root beer.
As I sat at one of Zingerman's little tables enjoying my lunch, I fielded calls from the crematory and provided pertinent information to obtain the death certificate. I called my mother's church and scheduled a date for her memorial. As I swallowed the last bite of corned beef and drank the last drop of root beer, I felt a swell of emotion rising from the bottom of my belly so strong I broke out in goosebumps. I quickly put away my cell phone and waddled as fast as I could to my car. While still parked in the parking lot, I curled up in the fetal position in the backseat. Cradling my belly for comfort, I sobbed.
After regaining composure, I drove home to an empty house and wandered into the bedroom where my mother had stayed. Tossed aside on the corner of the unmade bed was her favorite sweater: a light blue cotton cardigan. I hugged the sweater to my cheek and wished I had taken the time to hug my mother more often when she was alive and wearing it.
I wish I could say that I learned from the mistakes I made saying good-bye to my mom and am facing my present good-byes head on, but stoicism is still my preferred defense mechanism. I have thrown myself into the business of negotiating with moving and relocation companies, transferring funds from banks to escrow companies and home inspectors. I'm taking hours of time reorganizing and purging my sons' toy boxes and clothes closets in preparation for the move. I'm ashamed to say I've picked fights with my husband over nothing to avoid the real emotional issue at hand; living apart from him and my sons for over a month during the relocation. I've gladly over-scheduled myself in order not to have time to be sad saying good-bye to one friend because I am in such a hurry to move on to saying good-bye to the next.
But, despite my attempts to avoid the emotions involved in leaving the town I've lived in for over 20 years, the realities of moving have hit me hard. Maya's children and my children will not enjoy growing up together and my nephews will miss their cousins. My husband will miss watching his grandchildren grow month-by-month into adulthood. I will miss the comfort of old friends and the rhythm of the life I've established here.
I find it interesting that I leave for San Diego on September 6, the three year anniversary of my Mom's death. A new beginning awaits me and my family in California and looking forward to it makes the good-byes ahead of me bittersweet. When I say good-bye to Ann Arbor and all it holds dear, I will try not to swallow the lump that rises in my throat. I will hug each person I love very tightly before I go and remind them all that our good-byes each have in them the promise of a future hello. We're forever tied to each other, like the hyphen links together the good and the bye.